Revisiting: ‘Tenchu: Stealth Assassins’ (1998)
Ninjas are cool, embarking on dangerous missions with lots of equipment and skills that were the dream of every 5-year-old. Video games through the course of time had their own view on the way of the ninja, but few of theme truly captured the essence of this deadly machines. Before it’s dark and gloomy tone, From Software wasn’t a well-known name in the gaming industry,but it was associated with an amazing game series, that had the similar game mechanics as it’s Soul’s successor. Thus in this retrospective we will look back at one of the more interesting games in terms of stealth game play and one of my favorite games ever, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for the Playstation.
On October 1988, developing studio, Tecmo, released the now infamous Ninja Gaiden on the NES. This game gained many followers and soon other development studios were on the run to create their own ninja themed game. However in the mid 90’s the rise of 3D graphics came and with it new possibilities. Multiple consoles climbed the gaming ladder including the Nintendo 64, Dreamcast and the most popular Playstation 1. With the PS1 on the rise, a small development studio partnered with Activision in order to work on a new project. In the early stages of making, Acquire, the development studio, only hinted that the game was about a futuristic ninja and that it would be named Tenchu. Over time the project dropped most of the ideas and the focus was shifted more to the past rather than the future. The game was later given a full name Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and was released on February 26, 1998 on the PS1.
The plot of the game was set in feudal Japan and followed two ninja assassins by the name of Rikimaru and Ayame. Both characters were childhood friends and served together the Azama clan, along with its leader, Lord Gohda. However these assassins were quickly put to work since the land was becoming corrupted and unfamiliar events started to take place. Soon the two protagonists were introduced to a demonic warrior Onikage. It was unknown who Onikage served, but in the beginning it didn’t even matter, the only thing that mattered was that he was causing chaos and he had to be stopped. Afterwords our heroes discover that the demon has been serving a mysterious overlord by the name of Mei-Oh and that he also kidnapped Gohda’s daughter, princess Kiku. They were eventually sent by their master to go after the demonic threat and uncover what was Lord Mei-Oh true intention.
The game play opened with a rather obvious choice, which character should the player pick. Both Rikimaru and Ayame were playable from the beginning to the end and each had their own unique skills. Ayame was much faster than her male counterpart and had two small knifes, while Rikimaru was much stronger and carried only his trusty katana. After the player choose his favorite, he was put in the training area with the expectation that his character masters all the basic rules. After the protagonist completed his tutorial section, he was given an assignment to go and assassinate a corrupt merchant, and from then on the missions were only getting harder. The game only has 2 difficulties, Normal and Hard, making sure that it expected you not to just play as a ninja, but to become one. Tenchu also had only had 10 level’s in total, but don’t let its easy design fool you. The complexity of these missions will surely give you a hard time and maybe even force into a rage-quit.
By now anybody familiar with Dark Soul’s, should know the game that inspired it in terms of gaming mechanics and that was this titular title,. The health meter was small and would not increase during game play, since the developers emphasised more on stealth rather than brute force. After the success of another stealth game, Thief: The Dark Project, other developer studios followed its example when creating their own products. However, unlike the Thief, Acquires game wouldn’t be in first person, but rather in third, giving a better view of the surrounding in with the characters found themselves. The player before the start of each mission was given an option to take a few items with him, ranging from bombs, shurikens to bigger explosives and food. The character was always equipped with a grappling hook and with his iconic weapon and the rest was up to them. As we said stealth was important and if the player managed to sneak behind an enemy unnoticed he was able to perform a silent kill. Every enemy had a range of vision and were alerted easily, making the experience more challenging was also the fact that if spotted once, the guards will be more careful and prepared if they see you again. This added a certain life to the NPC’s which taught the player patience and thinking every step before executing it. At the end of each mission the character was scored with multiple ranks: Thug, Novice, Ninja, Master Ninja and finale Grand Master. Bigger ranks also unlocked more items for further missions, which the player will need if he is to beat this oppressive overlord.
The main reason it was so appealing to the audience was because it was hard, some saying it was too hard, but fair. There wasn’t a save button in the middle of the play through and every mission must be carried out to the end in order for the player to save his progress. There were also no checkpoints, meaning if you die you start over, but this constant trial and error thought everybody a valuable lesson. The enemies weren’t gonna let down and were always on the move. At first the assassins would face normal bodyguards, while later more deadlier foes. Tenchu’s controls were maximally adjusted for the Playstation 1, missing only one feature that was a major key to the game play, the option to sneak. Players weren’t able to slowly sneak behind enemies, instead they had to crouch and then crawl to their target. The main problem was that while crawling, the enemy was able to turn around faster at any time and punish those who get caught. Maybe the developers intended this in order for the community to truly see how hard it was actually to be a ninja.
If all of these things weren’t causing so much trouble for the players, this next feature sure did. At the end of each level, when everybody thought that they had finale reached a save point, the developers threw a boss at them. Even the first boss gave a small amount of challenge, and some level’s even gave two bosses instead of one. Onikage would be the only boss that would appear three times, first at the middle of the game, second before the final level and then once more near the games end. Lord Mei-Oh was also a ruthless bastard, giving no time for rest and kept everybody on their feat at all time. The final mission leading up to the battle was hard enough, now this lord has decided to test you one last time. Every boss had his own way of defeating, and just like Dark Soul’s, demanded the player to learn it through multiple tries. Those who were brave and endured were awarded, while those who rushed were doomed from the start. It was this kind of game style that was used for From Software’s masterpiece and the similarities could easily be spotted.
At the conclusion we come to the visuals of this title. Tenchu was mostly inspired by feudal Japan and it’s mythologies, which could have been seen with the design of enemies and bosses. The locals shifted from mansions, to tombs and even jungles and forests, with every place allowing for a different approach, depending on the player choice. Hidden paths were also their and items were also found along the way, which gave the characters some re-leaf and hope that they can finish in one piece. The music was composed by Noriyuki Asakura who only worked on the Tenchu games, and blended both traditional Japanes music with a bit of rock and other elements, while every character also had his respective voice actor. At the end of their task, at the hands of Lord Mei-Oh one of the characters dies, but that wouldn’t be the last time our heroes made their appearance. After being released exclusively for the Playstation, the game garnered positive reviews and was considered by many to be one of the best stealth based games, and even got a sequel in 2000 titled Tenchu: Birth of the Stealth Assassins. The franchise would continue strong and From Software would lend their magic in the third game and even use its mechanics for their own purpose in the future.
Overview: Tenchu: Stealth Assassins is considered to be one of the best games for the Playsation 1 and a turning point in terms of the stealth genre in gaming. Fans of the series will definitely tell you that they remember Tenchu for its difficultly, but that it was rewarding. While other titles were creating ninjas that were more terminators than assassins, Tenchu offered a true experience of the how it was to be a true ninja. In a bloody conflict you could only trust your sword and skills to survive and this game provided just that.